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Author Jori Lewis on the natural and human history of the peanut

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KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, this is Earth Eats and I'm your host, Kayte Young.

JORI LEWIS: But peanuts had become popular because of this move into New American past times that were accessible to the common man, or the common person. Baseball and theater halls and circuses all became places where people were interested in buying peanuts.

KAYTE YOUNG: This week on the show, I talk with Jori Lewis. She's an award-winning journalist and the author of the book Slaves For Peanuts. It's a book about the natural and human history of the peanut and the role it played in West Africa as the transatlantic slave trade was being abolished. Our conversation is just ahead, stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: This is Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. Whether it's candy bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or roasted peanuts at a baseball game, Americans love their peanuts. In fact, we consume more than 1.5 billion lbs of peanut products each year in the US, which seems like a lot to me considering the hyper-vigilance around peanut allergies these days. While peanut butter is one of my favorite foods, I can't say that I've given much thought to the peanut as a crop, or paid any attention to its role in history. And I certainly never considered what role peanuts may have played in stories of slavery and freedom in West Africa in the 19th century. My guest today has considered these things in depth. Jori Lewis is an award-winning journalist, writing about agriculture and the environment.

KAYTE YOUNG: In 2011 she moved to Senegal to study food security as a Fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. Jori Lewis is a 2018 recipient of the prestigious Whiting Grant for Creative Nonfiction. Her book Slaves For Peanuts was published in 2022 by The New Press. She currently splits her time between Senegal and the United States, Illinois to be precise, which is where she's from originally. I started our conversation by asking how she ended up living in Senegal.

JORI LEWIS: I sent a proposal that I wanted to go to Senegal and Mali actually, and research and write about food security. I knew Senegal was a country that was fairly easy to live in, it's very adaptable. I didn't end up moving to Mali because I was so comfortable in Senegal and then there was a coup in Mali in early 2012. That was really not an option for me anymore. Anyway, that's how I ended up in Senegal, once the two year fellowship ended. I had been living before that in New York, freelancing; I was mostly a radio reporter. I didn't want to go back to New York, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I just ended up staying in Senegal because, again, it's an easy place to be.

JORI LEWIS: There are a lot of foreign journalists who kind of end up staying there. The visa laws are very simple. It's just an easy country in a lot of ways. Now I've been here for so long and then I got married to a Senegali citizen so I'm proper, not like just writing under the radar on loose visa laws, I am technically a semi-resident of Senegal, so there we go.

KAYTE YOUNG: Well, I'd love to hear the story of how you got into the topic of your book and what drew you to study the history of the peanut trade, or of the peanut in Africa.

JORI LEWIS: Food security's kind of like a fancy word to talk about agricultural markets, essentially and how well they're working, which often they're not working well. I think, initially sometimes people think about food security in terms of a production issue, but it's rarely a production issue, it's almost always supply. That's sometimes I learned quite quickly too, which I'm not sure, maybe did I know that at the beginning of starting this journey. In Senegal the main sort of agricultural crop for more than a century has been peanuts, right? I say that like you know, but. [LAUGHS] But, yeah, so there has been peanuts as a kind of main agricultural crop, cash crop, for a long time. When I arrived in Senegal, I wanted to know more about this thing called the peanut trade, the peanut agriculture, how it functioned, what its role was in society because, yeah, I mean, there have been any number of books sort of written about Senegal and it's relationship to the peanut.

JORI LEWIS: There are religious leaders who became big peanut growers through using the workforce of their adherence. Their followers, let's call them. I already knew all of that, right? So it was like, I gotta take a look at this peanut trade stuff, right? I ended up spending a lot of time in this area called The Peanut Basin in Senegal, it corresponds to a region called Saloum. And I think everything sort of springs from that decision to investigate more about peanuts and spend a lot of time in peanut growing regions.

KAYTE YOUNG: The title of your book is Slaves For Peanuts: a story of conquest, liberation and crop that changed history. I think it's a very provocative title and I was wondering if you could break it down for our listeners, just starting with what is meant by slaves for peanuts?

JORI LEWIS: Thanks for that question. I love a pun, so I think that was always the working title of the manuscript, even when we sold it and there was some discussion by my publisher about changing the title of the book because they felt it was kind of jokey, but I resisted. I didn't hear it that way, I still don't really. "I'm working for peanuts", that kind of jokey atmosphere of it, but that wasn't really what I was thinking. The book is really literally about slaves for peanuts, so it's about the way in which the commercialization of peanut agriculture in the 19th century extended and supported a system of unfree labor, right? Like, a system of enslavement that accelerated even to this part of Senegal during this time.

JORI LEWIS: The title is literal but it's also working on a number of different levels because throughout the course of the book you learn that enslaved people are also being able to purchase their freedom with peanuts. Peanuts were like buying them, they're cultivating peanuts and they're buying peanuts, so there's a kind of multiple ways that the title works.

KAYTE YOUNG: I think when I first saw it, I had just read a book and interviewed someone about palm oil and about how the palm oil trade kind of took the place of slavery in some areas when the slave trade became abolished. I sort of wondered if that's what it was, instead of slaves, we're now doing peanuts. [LAUGHS]

JORI LEWIS: Oh, yes, that is also true. See? I missed even a layer of meaning. It's multilayered, it's very complex, yes, it's true. I guess even one additional layer of meaning would be the economic systems that are slaves for peanuts, right? That are enchained to this production of peanuts. Yes, as I do explain in the book, in fact the story of palm oil is analogous. Palm oil was being produced further down the coast where palm trees were more common, palms were not as common in this part of West Africa. So, it's true, it's the same thing, I think I discuss in an early chapter, there's this kind of movement leading up to the abolition of the slave trade. There's the conversation about Thomas Clarkson and his briefcase of products that could replace the slave trade and I think the palm nut was one of them.

JORI LEWIS: I don't think the peanut was in it, but [LAUGHS] the palm nut was there. But the peanut sort of played that role for the same reasons that palm oil did in other places, in Nigeria and Ghana. Côte d’Ivoire they were growing more palm oil. The idea was that this is the kind of free market idea that industrialists and thinkers in Europe had. They said that in order to reduce the pool of enslaved labor, that's essentially, never mind the market for enslaved labor but, whatever. [LAUGHS] In order to reduce this pool that people should be put to work growing peanuts or cultivating palm trees for palm oil. This idea that the commerce of the Western World; It's funny to say "Western world" because they are both basically on the same longitude. The commerce of the northern world had with Africa needed to shift from being based on human flesh to a number of goods that they called legitimate commerce.

JORI LEWIS: The peanut was one, but also palm oil, rubber later. Also not a great story either. None of these so-called replacements for slavery ended up being particularly palatable from 100, 150 year of time looking back.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah. Let's go to the other part of the title, a Story of Conquest and Liberation. Can you talk about whose conquest and whose liberation?

JORI LEWIS: The book is also about how colonialism is creeping in. It's about the various ways that colonialism emerges in this context. It's not really emerged, like, operationalized. It is a story of the conquest of this place that was many kingdoms with many different rulers to become a colony. The book is also the story of that, very much so, and the story of liberation. It's liberation of people moving from areas where they're enslaved to becoming free. The fully one third of the book is really about this particular mission for runaway slaves, a refuge for runaway slaves. Runaway slaves are running in search of their freedom and in search of liberation. So, it's very much also that story.

KAYTE YOUNG: How did the peanut crop change history?

JORI LEWIS: Ah, that's always a kind of nebulous question for me. Of course, the the peanut crop changed. The sort of commerce represented by the peanut was one means by which the French got their tenter hooks into this land called Senegal. Then from Senegal into the rest of what they called French West Africa, which is a pretty large swathe of Africa. Not insignificant. I think in a very basic level, there's that. There's this kind of relationship, this economic relationship that changed part of Africa, so it necessarily changed history but also allowed so many European commercial entities to enrich themselves in many different ways.

KAYTE YOUNG: Why was the peanut crop central to European colonial ambitions? What does that look like?

JORI LEWIS: Well, I think it's one of these things that in West Africa, colonialism looks a little bit different than colonialism looked in America. Even as it looked in India and several other countries, or even Kenya where there is a proper southern presence. In West African, mostly Europeans were settling on the coast or on islands where they would trade with the interior. They would trade with people but they had no territorial control, this is part of that. Their interests are guided by maybe strategic military positions, but also by their merchants because that's the main goal. It's like mercantile capitalism, essentially, right? They're there just trading. I think that's part of how the peanut rose to province, because it's one product that the merchants in and around Senegal are looking for and that in some ways also drives the strategy, drives the policy.

KAYTE YOUNG: The economy surrounding the peanut production and trade, was it dependent on slave labor?

JORI LEWIS: I guess I couldn't say. I'm not sure if I ever saw numbers. What is the distinction between how much free and unfree labor there was. I tried to explain the book that the acceleration of peanut production happened really rapidly. There's a demand for this thing, this thing called peanut oil for a lot of different reasons, right? For greasing machines, for soap. For table oil, all of these things. It becomes a demand that continues to grow, especially because of industrialization in Europe and all the societal and cultural changes that Europe is going through.

JORI LEWIS: The demand for the peanut expands but Senegal and this part of West Africa, which is like, really well placed for European market because it's quite close, needs to put more land into production. There aren't enough people, there aren't enough strong backs to put the labor in, so then there becomes an increased demand for labor, for that purpose. I couldn't venture to tell you how much. Was it most if it? Was it half? I don't know.

KAYTE YOUNG: In any case it was probably low cost labor?

JORI LEWIS: Yeah. No, I mean, I couldn't tell you how much of the labor that went into increasing peanut production was enslaved. Otherwise, yeah. I don't know if I explained this in the book, but there are many different types of labor systems that are based on kinship and reciprocal arrangements. So, if you're a man and you have nephews, your nephews might come and work for you and you won't pay them. You don't pay your nephew, but maybe they get a portion of the crop or whatever. Later in the book, I talk about the Ndem and this semi sharecropping system does sort of mimic that traditional system of working the land with extended kin. Then any type of strangers also have to have that same relationship where they don't get paid but they might make a little bit of a crop, like, a percentage.

KAYTE YOUNG: Is the peanut crop native to Africa?

JORI LEWIS: No, the peanut plant is native to South America and it moved to African, we don't know when, but it would have to be after the so-called discovery. My best guess was that it moved rather quickly to this area to what they call the Guinea Rivers. It's interesting, a lot of people don't know, but Christopher Columbus, for example, explored the West Coast of Africa, or at least this part of West Africa quite a lot before sailing across the ocean to get a sense of the current. He and many sailors did already have relationships in West Africa before going. It's true, maybe even on one of the first trips, they could have brought back this peanut and taken it along with them. Peanuts are really easy to transport.

KAYTE YOUNG: Are the conditions in the area particularly suited to the crop?

JORI LEWIS: The part of Senegal that I focus on in the book, Cayor, is a sort of sandy soil that is especially well suited to peanuts because, of course, peanuts grow underground. You wouldn't want a clay soil, a tight packed soil, because you couldn't dig up the peanuts really very easily. I think you would get a lot of crop loss. With the light sandy soil you can pull it up, shake it, chh-chh, you know?

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes. You said it was a rapid increase in the production of peanuts. How did that change the agriculture, the land use and the nutrition of that area and that culture?

JORI LEWIS: I try to take the reader on a journey that they're exploring and learning throughout the course of the book. Over the course of the book you get signs, and you're like, "Ah, you know, people are growing a lot of peanuts, I hear in some places they're not rotating their crops anymore. I don't know what that means." Then later you learn, "Ah, I hear some places where they're having some sort of strange crop diseases, I don't know what that means but, whatever, we just push into new land, it's fine." You kind of emerge with the feeling of maybe a farmer of the time or a person watching at the time might have felt with not knowing, in hindsight, what proper agricultural techniques to take. Over time the expansion of demand meant that the traditional growing methods whereby they would probably rotate, millet to cow peas, to other types of crops, and have a robust crop rotation system and fallow system.

JORI LEWIS: That starts to break down because there's so much demand. Even if you don't grow peanuts on your land, maybe someone else will come through or some itinerant farmers [LAUGHS] crop or whatever you give them, so you can have more money. There's an allure of money, but not just an allure of money, it's not just that people are greedy, it's also at some point there's a structural reason for it. There's debt, there's the head tax, there are all these things that make it so people are even structurally obligated to grow peanuts.

JORI LEWIS: In terms of the nutrition, yes, I alluded to this a little bit ago. The ecological niche that peanuts occupy is the same one that millet does. Millet is the main staple crop traditionally of this part of Senegal. Now, because of increases in peanut production, people were growing less millet generally and then there's, let's call it a colonial economy policy, to push people to grow peanuts instead of millet. Over time, that has really changed the diets of people now today. I talk about it in the book, there's a kind of substitution of rice for millet that happens, I think, first in cities where people are able to get more rice. Then among a kind of military class of people there's this kind of indigenous military. The French, they enlist through various means. They were enlisting African men into these various military units and feeding them rice, right?

JORI LEWIS: Then they figured out, "Oh, rice is tasty, rice is also easy to cook" and they go back to their villages. It's a kind of rice propaganda, you know? Over time that really has taken a toll, I think, on the food system or health systems. Looking at it today, people eat rice every day, they really do.

KAYTE YOUNG: We're talking about white, refined rice? Not wholegrain brown rice?

JORI LEWIS: Yes, not wholegrain rice, white rice. Yes. It's, whatever, people eat white rice all over the world, but it wasn't typically a part of the diet here in this particular part of Senegal. Again, in lower Senegal, this area called the [PHONETIC: Cosmods], they're big rice growers. They talk about it all the time, the rice. But [LAUGHS] in most of Senegal it was a millet culture.

KAYTE YOUNG: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jori Lewis, author of the book Slaves for Peanuts, which was published in 2022. It's time for a short break. When we come back we'll talk about who is eating peanuts and how, in present day Senegal, in 19th century American culture and who the major peanut producers and consumers are today. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. My guest today is the author of Slaves for Peanuts, Jori Lewis. Her book explores how the humble peanut drove the Senegalese economy for more than a century, and the role of the peanut in the region following the abolishment of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Before the break, we were talking about how peanuts had replaced millet as a major crop in Senegal and how millet was a major staple in the Senegalese diet. I was curious about how and when peanuts entered the cuisine of the people who were producing them.

KAYTE YOUNG: The peanuts that were being grown, they're mostly being grown to be exported, is that true?

JORI LEWIS: Yes, I think probably even today most peanuts are exported. People do eat peanuts, obviously, and they have for a long time, which I don't cover in the book. I was very sad to not cover it because, of course, there's a peanut soup, across West Africa and Senegal has one. I couldn't because the book is about the 19th century. My understanding is this peanut soup, which is called mafe, which is a word that comes from Bamenda, so it's a word that comes from a Mandi language. It seems to give an uptake in the 20th century, I can't remember the 1930s or 1940s, so then I couldn't really include it in the book. In the 19th century, you're not seeing, or at least the records that I've seen, which, again, the records that I see are also colonial records, right? What snapshot is it taking a picture of? There are in the archives menus of colonial balls, it's all terrines, [LAUGHS] fresh roasts and ices.

JORI LEWIS: This is not what everybody is eating. From the reach that I've done in the 19th century, you're not seeing so much people eating a lot of peanuts in their diet, but you are seeing some stack foods. I mention this in the chapter where I talk about [PHONETIC: Rene Cayenne]. There is a large dispute about whether or not he's talking about peanuts in that book or it's cousin, the bambara groundnut, which is what we call it today. I think, certainly, he talks about eating a lot of roasted whatever these things are that sounds like peanuts to me. [LAUGHS] Also, there is a kind of cake, I talk about it. I call it the 19th Century energy bar, but it is a kind of millet based cake. It's not a cake cake, it's a bunch cooked millet typically, held together by a little bit of honey and some peanuts. That you can actually still find on certain neighborhoods you might be able to find that.

KAYTE YOUNG: It's interesting. I mean, I understand that a lot of the demand for the peanut crop had to do with the oil and in that sense, it is like palm oil, it's being used in industry, not just in food. But, also peanuts are a really nutrient dense food and you can eat them pretty much straight out of the ground or just roasting them. You don't even have to do a lot to prepare them. I just found it interesting if it is replacing millet in some areas, it's not like you're necessarily replacing the crop with a less nutritious crop. But, if it's not being consumed there in the community, it's being shipped away, then I see the problem there.

JORI LEWIS: Well, I think it's a little bit different, because millet's a staple food, right? You eat staple foods like millet and rice in much larger quantities, then you eat the things you eat on top of the millet and rice. I mean in a way it's not analogous, right? If peanut's taking up millet crop land, millet does need a lot of land so you can grow a lot of millet, because people have a lot of millet to eat, right? Millet really is, in all the records, you can see millet is the basis of everything.

KAYTE YOUNG: It's the grain that everyone's eating.

JORI LEWIS: Yes, exactly and it's every meal. Millet and yogurt. Millet and meat sauce. Millet and a little bit of whatever.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes. What you said about peanuts is that they weren't, as far as you can tell anyway, really a part of the traditional cuisine. Like you said, you're not going to replace millet with a snack food or with one soup. [LAUGHS]

JORI LEWIS: Yes. It wasn't as well used as it now, I think. It doesn't seem to have been. Although maybe, the records are not with us. It's hard to say what are the eating habits of 19th century regular peasant people, or whatever. You know what I mean, because that's what they would say. They'd be like, les paysan. [LAUGHS] I mean, as far as we can tell there's a lot of millet. Sometimes a few peanuts here and there. Not nearly the proliferation of sauces that have peanuts in them that we have today in Senegal and a lot of parts of West Africa.

KAYTE YOUNG: That's what I was going to ask is what about now? Has it become a part of the cuisine of local people?

JORI LEWIS: Absolutely. Peanuts are in so many things. It's funny, my husband, he's allergic to peanuts. I actually have this one dish I really like a lot, it's called cherry ambumen, that's where you make a millet based couscous. boomem boomen tends to be made from leaves of some kind, and usually you use leaves of the moringa tree. You could also use sweet potato leaves, or casaba leaves or something like that. Then it's mixed with this stuff called [PHONETIC: no fly] which is kind of like ground peanut. It's not a paste, it's like peanut flour, basically. I mix it together with either some meat or fish or whatever, or even some beans, but it doesn't have to. It's one of my favorite dishes, and now we don't make it anymore, unless he's gone, then I make it. Yes, there are others that have that peanut flour, also peanut butter. There are desserts. There are all kinds of things that peanut's involved, and also roasted peanuts, they are widely sold on the street, like, everywhere.

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, so they are now integrated?

JORI LEWIS: Yes. My sense is probably that roasted peanut was always there, I think. My sense is that probably even in the 19th century you could have gotten roasted peanuts on the street around harvest time. Even maybe after because peanuts do keep pretty well in good conditions, just depending on how dry you keep them.

KAYTE YOUNG: You mentioned earlier the peanut basin. Where is the peanut basin, or where was it? I mean, is it still considered the Peanut Basin?

JORI LEWIS: When I first started looking into this, I was interested in the area called The Peanut Basin today, which mostly correlates with the region of Senegal called the Saloum, which is centered around the Saloum River, which is three or four hours from Dakar. Doing research, I realize that The Peanut Basin used to be further north. That there was a Peanut Basin that was closer to Saint-Louis which is extreme north of the country. It's a different climate, it's sandier, it's drier, it's quite different. That was part of what interested me in this story was also to solve the mystery for me about why what we call The Peanut Basin had moved. Why was it known as something else before?

KAYTE YOUNG: Where are the major peanut producers today? Or who are the major peanut producers today?

JORI LEWIS: I haven't looked at the numbers lately but I mean, obviously China is a big producer and the United States is still a big producer. Senegal is still in the top ten the last time I checked. [LAUGHS] I'm sure they didn't get knocked out any time recently. They're still in the top ten, but there are many other countries that grow peanuts. I think Sudan is on that list. Nigeria even, maybe. There are a number of other countries. Northern Nigeria's climate is still a part of the Sahel, it's very similar to Senegal, it's also a very good place to grow peanuts. The Sudan, obviously, is half dessert, so it's pretty analogous in a lot of ways to Senegal as well. I'm sure there are many other places that are top peanut producers. On orders of magnitude no-one comes close to China, it's not even really a contest.

JORI LEWIS: What's kind of shocking too is most of the export crop now today goes to China from Senegal. The Chinese people are growing so much more peanuts than anywhere else and also buying more.

KAYTE YOUNG: Gosh, that's interesting because I don't really picture Chinese cuisine having a lot, but maybe it's about the oil.

JORI LEWIS: They use a lot of peanut oil because peanut oil is a really good frying oil and just like stir fry, I guess. It's a good cooking oil. In America, we just don't use as much oil because of the allergies, because of the health and safety measures for children or whatever, put into place so there's not a lot of peanut oil circulating. In American we have forgotten what a great oil it is, actually and it is a really good oil for cooking.

KAYTE YOUNG: That leads to a question I had. When did peanuts become really a popular food in the U.S. and what drove that popularity?

JORI LEWIS: That was one of my favorite sort of fun finds. In fact, I mean, the book is several interwoven narratives and I was trying very hard [LAUGHS] make then weave appropriately. In fact, it's interesting, there was what they called [PHONETIC: coast wide] trade in West Africa with a lot of New England shipping merchants that were heavily involved in West Africa. It was something I had never really thought about and was one of the kind of things that emerged from this research. Wanting to follow my main character is this Protestant missionary, Walter Taylor. I was digging into his biography and when I saw that he had worked for this Boston shipping merchant house, I dug into what that was about. I think, even though Senegal, again, was exporting peanuts and I knew that, but I wouldn't have maybe dug as deeply into it if Walter Taylor hadn't been intimately involved with this Boston shipping merchant.

JORI LEWIS: It gave me the opportunity to look into this merchant to see what was he doing? What was he buying? Who was he selling it to? Why were they buying it? Those were all the questions that kind of emerged. Yes, these New England shipping merchants are buying peanuts in West Africa. Mostly in Senegal, the Gambia and parts of, I guess, Sierra Leone, probably also, and bringing them back to America and selling them to exotic fruit and nut dealers. Yes, peanut was an exotic nut, even though it was being grown in the south, in Virginia, all throughout the south, probably but it was getting kind of a boost in Virginia at the moment. Peanuts had become popular because of this moment of New American pastimes that were accessible to the common man, or the common person. So, baseball and theater halls and circuses, all those places became places where people were interested in buying peanuts. Peanuts nonetheless still retained a negative association to be called like, "a peanut eater" or the peanut gallery.

JORI LEWIS: Like, you can see all of the things because they have negative associations and they're also though a chain of associations still linked with black people in America, who are the principle growers of peanuts, originally. Even when they moved north, they still were associated with a lower class and with these lower class pastimes. [LAUGHS] Eventually it became more palatable to a larger class of people. Or, maybe not a larger class, a more elite class of people, so it dispersed from the bottom up.

KAYTE YOUNG: I thought that was an interesting part where it was like, "Oh, these forms of entertainment." Like you said they were forms of entertainment that were more accessible to lower classes. Yes, I can see the association.

JORI LEWIS: Yes, and they moved on. It's a little bit complicated but I wouldn't be able to tell you when it became more acceptable to everyone to be eating peanuts. I think it would, probably not until the 20th century, I wouldn't even think probably until the war, because of shortages. That's just random thoughts, I have no proof to back that up but I would think so.

KAYTE YOUNG: I'm speaking with Jori Lewis, she's the author of the book Slaves for Peanuts, a story of conquest, liberation, and a crop that changed history. After a short break, we'll return to our conversation and learn about the challenges of writing a factual narrative with limited historical documents and how she landed on a man named Walter Taylor as a central character for her book. He was a Protestant missionary who ran a mission for runaway slaves in Senegal. That's just ahead on Earth Eats. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. Let's get back to my interview with Jori Lewis, author of the book, Slaves for Peanuts.

KAYTE YOUNG: I wanted to ask you to talk a bit more about Walter Taylor, who is a black Protestant missionary from Sierra Leone, and he's an important figure in the book. I wondered if you could talk about why you chose to include him, or it sounds like he was kind of a central focus for the narrative, or for at least one strand of the narrative.

JORI LEWIS: Yes, thanks for that question. Walter Taylor, there are few things going on. I mean, when I first conceived of Slaves for Peanuts it was a high concept idea. I didn't know that some of the historical characters I wanted to use in the book; they didn't have enough source material to draw out a proper narrative. One of those characters is still in the book, a woman [PHONETIC: Bneura Billy], she's a plantation owner. [LAUGHS] She's a slave owner and probably a slave trader, and grows an enormous amount of peanuts. I didn't have enough to really bring her alive as well as I would have liked, and there were a couple of others. I sort of stumbled upon a mention about this Walter Taylor and his mission for runaway slaves. He ran a mission for runaway slaves in the colonial capital of Saint-Louis, and I had no idea that there had been a mission for runaway slaves in Africa at all. Anywhere on the continent of Africa, it sort of blew my mind. I started to look into it. Then, when I went to France, to look at the archives of this mission, I found that there were 20 years of correspondence from Walter Taylor to the director of the Paris Evangelical Mission Society.

JORI LEWIS: Yes, it was the materials in a way that determined the centrality of the book and then there were some sort of happy surprises. That Walter Taylor once did work for a Boston shipping merchant shipping out peanut, that allowed me a kind of new view on things to move in some unexpected directions but that were still quite relevant. He's a kind of a figure who has a front row view to French colonization but at the same time doesn't have any stake in it in a way. He does and he doesn't because he's a leader, a natural French citizen, but he's from Sierra Leone and he comes from a different place, he has a different perspective. He's an insider outsider. He becomes one lens to look at the rest.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, that must have been exciting when you came across that material.

JORI LEWIS: Yes, it really was. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG: I feel like the book, you take us along your journey a bit too in just discovering information. This kind of detective work of trying to figure out what was going on, and I definitely got a sense of how difficult that kind of work can be where you were doing it and the time period that you were researching.

JORI LEWIS: Yes, it is difficult. You're just limited too. Someone really did think that this book was a novel. More than a few people are like, "Is it a novel?" and even after they read it, they feel like it's a novel. Clearly didn't read it closely. I think of course it's a work of non-fiction and the difference between a work of non-fiction and a work of historical fiction, which maybe in historical fiction you might still find some of the same descriptions. You might found some of the same techniques that I've used. But I'm bound by the truth, I can't make things up. [LAUGHS] That was always the limitation of the project. It was like, "Well, what do I have? What can I know? What is unknowable?" You know?

KAYTE YOUNG: You said you felt like there were three threads of the book. Can you say what those three are and how they interact?

JORI LEWIS: Yes. So Slaves for Peanuts is an interwoven story of three characters. It is a book about the peanut, as a character, it's about the peanut's journey from South America to Africa. How it becomes involved in cropping systems and these other larger social cultural, geopolitical shifts. That's part of it. The second sort of character we focus on is, as I just mentioned, Walter Taylor and his mission for runaway slaves. Walter Taylor is the vehicle for us to understand a little bit more about enslavement in general. Also, he's sharing with the reader a kind of story about displacement, about community, about liberation but also about colonialism by another means, a kind of colonialism of the mind. [LAUGHS] He's giving us all of that. The third story is the story of Lat Jor who's the damel or the king of Cayor, which is the principal kingdom that we're interested in in Slave for Peanuts and is the land par excellence for peanut agriculture.

JORI LEWIS: Lat Jor is by turn negotiating his relationship with the French, so this is the story of conquest and how it's affected, how it's mediated. How Lat Jor negotiates it and fails, ultimately.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, thank you for that. I think that offers a lot of clarity about what's happening in the book for folks who haven't read it. One of the things that comes through in your book is the complicated timeline of when the slave trade was outlawed, how people continue to be enslaved and how the practice differed in West Africa compared to how it was practiced in the US. I was wondering if you could walk us through some of those differences, I know we touched on it earlier in the conversation. Why wasn't there a clean line when slavery ended? I think in some people's imagination, you just think, "Oh, well, when it ended, it ended."

JORI LEWIS: Well, yes, and I think even in American that's not particularly true. We had a long reconstruction and then a backlash and then Jim Crow. Are those things slavery? No, but are they an extension of unfree labor and systems of exploitation that lock people into certain circumstances. We have to think more broadly. I mean, I like to see that our American understanding of slavery, I had someone in one my very earliest interviews, he said, "Well, you know but wasn't America the biggest system of slavery in the world in history?". I was like, "Not at all, not by far." [LAUGHS] Even in the contemporaneous period, there were more slaves, I think. For certain Brazil was a larger slave society, hands down. Let's just call that, right? That's an easier one. Brazil had a larger slaves system, on orders of magnitude larger than the United States.

JORI LEWIS: Do not quote me here, but I think even a small country like Barbados may have had more enslaved people come to Barbados and then die, apparently. Like, come to be imported into Barbados than the United States ever had. These are kind of U.S.-centric musings from our public discourse that we think we're biggest and best at everything, even slavery. [LAUGHS] Of course, it's not true. Also, that experience of slavery we had, a kind of idea about what that meant, but at the same time, of course, there was enslavement in other places. In Africa there was a system of slavery that already existed, and that system of slavery changed and altered slightly, over the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Atlantic Slave Trade had an impact not only on African societies but on enslavement in those societies.

JORI LEWIS: In many parts of Africa and many parts of West Africa in this general area of the Sahel, this general area of Western Africa, there are different kinds of categories of enslavement. You might have trade slaves, so those are probably freshly taken enslaved people, who had been captured, especially in this period because there is a lot of upheaval, captured by war, but could be any number of other types of ways to be enslaved. That enslaved person could be sold anywhere and was treated like money, essentially, was a commodity, was an object of trade. There is another sort of category of enslaved person that's typical, that's slave of the house, essentially, house slave. It's not exactly house slave in the sense that we have in America, it's a person who was probably born into slavery and whose relationship to their enslaver has shifted into something that's a little bit closer to kinship.

JORI LEWIS: I would not say it is full kinship, but they're on a kinship spectrum, let's call it. Those house slaves should not be sold. There was an interdiction on the sale of such people than what is their function, what happens exactly? There's a lot of gradations that depend on places and maybe how much do those people really want their freedom, in general? Because they're existing in kind of like a system of kinship, which might end in them being able to have land or get married or have enough money to pay a dowry, or whatever. That's a different kind of condition. I think a lot of the enslaved people, like in the Mission for Runaway Slaves, were clearly freshly captured people, or had been captured at some point. I have one chapter that I really liked.

JORI LEWIS: Some people are divided about this chapter, where it's called the 15 Captives of Injacan Jai and it's a deposition, in fact, of this man, Injacan Jai had a number of enslaved people on his farm, where he was not allowed to have enslaved people, and he was prosecuted, essentially. The deposition they made of these enslaved people and their stories are just so fascinating because you understand how far they've come. There was even a man in that deposition who spoke no language that anyone knew, so who knows where he came from? It's really interesting to think about people who had been caught in a war. This one woman was caught in a war and then sold for, I forgot, it's like, a kilo of salt or something like that. She's sold for, like, nothing on the desert side, and then sold to Moors who sold her. Then she was caught to Warren Mulley and sold to Moors, like Martinien who went up the river and sold her in Saint-Louis.

JORI LEWIS: There's this interesting interplay there that I found really fascinating.

KAYTE YOUNG: It's just a lot more complicated than I think we in the U.S. typically think about it, if we're thinking about it at all.

JORI LEWIS: Yes, very few people think about it. I mean, that's in a way part of the goal of the book was to tell all the stories. Tell the complex stories that were not just looking at one way of seeing things but to understand the full breadth of the thing and all of its contradictions, and to look at it with clear eyes.

KAYTE YOUNG: Well, it's a really interesting story, it was a really great book. Thank you for writing it and for talking with me.

JORI LEWIS: Thank you so much. Thanks for your interest.

KAYTE YOUNG: Jori Lewis is an author and award-winning journalist writing about agriculture and the environment. She's a 2018 recipient of the prestigious Whiting Grant for Creative Nonfiction. Her book Slaves for Peanuts was published in 2022 by the New Press. Slaves for Peanuts is a fascinating book with interwoven stories and complexities we can't fully cover in an episode of Earth Eats. I guess you'll have to read the book for yourself. We have links to Jori Lewis' work on our website,

DANIELLA RICHARDSON: Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young with help from Eoban Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Samantha Schimenhauer], Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media and me, Daniella Richardson.

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Jori Lewis.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is John Bailey.

Book cover for Slaves for Peanuts, a peanut plant illustration on an orange background, and a black and white headshot of Jori Lewis next to it.

Jori Lewis is the author of Slaves for Peanuts, published in 2022 by The New Press. (Courtesy of The New Press)

"Peanuts had become popular because of this movement of new American pastimes that were accessible to the common man, or the common person. So, baseball and theater halls and circuses--all of those places became places where people were interested in buying peanuts."

This week on the show we continue our 15 year anniversary celebration in conversation with Jori Lewis. She’s an award winning journalist and the author of Slaves For Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop that Changed History. It is a book about the natural and human history of the peanut and the role it played in West Africa as the transatlantic slave trade was ending.


Whether it’s candy bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or roasted peanuts at a baseball game, we Americans love ourpeanuts. In fact we consume more than 1.5 billion pounds of peanut products each year in the US, which seems like a lot to me considering the hyper-vigilance around peanut allergies these days. 

While peanut butter is one of my favorite foods, I can’t say that I have given much thought to the peanut as a crop, or paid any attention to it’s role in history. And I certainly never considered what role peanuts may have played in stories of slavery and freedom in West Africa in the 19th century. 

My guest today has considered these things, in depth. 

Jori Lewis is an award winning Journalist, writing about agriculture and the environment. In 2011 she moved to Senegal to study food security as a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. Jori Lewis is a 2018 recipient of the prestigious Whiting Grant for Creative Nonfiction.  Her book Slaves for Peanuts was published in 2022 by The New Press. She currently splits her time between Senegal and the United States, Illinois to be precise, which is where she is from originally.

Listen to our conversation on this week's show. 

Music on this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from the artists at Universal Production Music.


The Earth Eats team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

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